Block Cinema wraps up film series commemorating 30s glamor and the popular front | Bleader

Block Cinema wraps up film series commemorating 30s glamor and the popular front

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John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947), screening Saturday at 2 PM
  • John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947), screening Saturday at 2 PM
This weekend Block Cinema at Northwestern University concludes two series of studio-era American movies, each one programmed in conjunction with a different art exhibit at the Block Museum (and both presented entirely from 35-millimeter). The first of these, Moving Pictures, corresponds to an exhibit of photos by Edward Steichen and Andy Warhol. Steichen's is the dominant personality here—his bold lighting schemes, which often emphasize the vertical dimension of the frame, make all his human figures look like movie stars and all his location shots look like movie settings. His images provide a useful context for the Warhol photos on display (which were shot in the 1970s and '80s), as they epitomize the glamorous sensibility that Warhol simultaneously revered and satirized.

The Steichen photos come from the 1920s and '30s, during which period the photographer shot for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and several New York advertising agencies. I've enjoyed looking at them before going into the screenings of It and Grand Hotel (which feature some of the movie stars in Steichen's photos)—the images conjure auras of seduction and opulence that are the films' animating forces. City Streets (1931), screening Friday at 7 PM, stars Sylvia Sidney two years after she posed for Steichen's camera. Dave Kehr once wrote in the Reader that Rouben Mamoulian's direction of this gangland melodrama, though considered innovative at the time, "remain[s] mostly on the surface." Even so, that shouldn't be a problem in the context of this series, given the emphasis on surface effects in the Steichen and Warhol photographs.

Body and Soul (1947), screening Saturday at 2 PM, has plenty of interesting surface effects too. The great cinematographer James Wong Howe famously shot some of the boxing sequences on roller skates, and his chiaroscuro lighting is remarkable throughout. This also features the quintessential performance by John Garfield, who plays a working-class Jewish boxer who gets chewed up by the corrupt world of sports. The movie is part of a series complementing the visual-art exhibit "Radical Art in the 'Red Decade,' 1929-1940," which "revisits a moment in U.S. cultural history when visual artists joined forces to form a 'left front' to make socially conscious art."

Body and Soul is a sadly appropriate conclusion to the series. It was in some ways the flagship release for Enterprise Productions, a short-lived independent-film company driven by figures associated with the popular front. Soon after Enterprise dissolved in 1949, many key players at the company would be blacklisted (among them Garfield and Body and Soul screenwriter Abraham Polonsky) or forced to publicly recant their radical politics. The critic J. Hoberman wrote at length about this episode in his excellent history An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War. He'll introduce Saturday's screening and lead a postshow discussion about the influence of Jewish leftists in Hollywood.

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